So the Twins got shut out by the lowly Orioles last night, wasting another great start from Carl Pavano. (Side note: Pavano has been rock-solid this year, and it's not just smoke and mirrors. His HR/FB rate is a little low, so xFIP has him slightly above his 3.43 ERA at 3.55, but there's nothing in his peripherals to indicate he's pitching over his head. His K/BB rate is a sparkling 5.00, and his BABIP is maybe even slightly above average at .302. Needless to say, this has been a big boost to the team.) The Twins again left 10 men on base, so this prompted me to take a look at some situational hitting stats. I'm not going to get into the "is clutch hitting a quantifiable skill" debate, because, frankly, although I'm fairly convinced that the stats bear out that it's not (although Andre Ethier had another walk-off grand slam last night, for what it's worth), I'm not 100% ready to say that the mental makeup of a player doesn't have at least some sort of effect, whether or not you can point it out in the numbers. If you want to read more, there's plenty of discussion out there, and FanGraphs actually has a "Clutch" statistic based on Win Probability Added that aims to measure how a player compares to himself in high-leverage situations. All I'm going to say is that my gut reaction after Thursday's game was that the Twins haven't been doing a very good job of hitting with runners in scoring position this year. Let's see what the numbers say, thanks to Yahoo's nifty situational hitting stat sorter. And yeah, sample size alert, yadda yadda yadda.
Overall RISP average: .271, 12th in MLB. Ok, so not great, but this isn't quite as bad as maybe I'd thought, and I do love seeing the White Sox at the bottom of this list at a measly .195. The Twins finished 5th in the league last year at .277, so this isn't far below that.
RISP, 2 outs average: .271, 7th in MLB. Interestingly, this number is exactly the same, the only team for which this is the case. It moves the Twins up the rankings a little bit, but in terms of statistical significance, I can't say I'm exactly sure what it means. It might indicate, though, that 2-out hitting isn't the root of the problem here.
Bases loaded average: .149, 27th in MLB. Oh boy, here is where it gets bad. Only the Astros (.133) and Blue Jays (.053!) are below the Twins on this list. Minnesota has had 47 bases-loaded situations this year (including 2 last night), and only has hits in 7. The sheer number of bases-loaded chances outpaces the next closest team (Yankees with 33) by a wide margin, however, a fact that is both encouraging and discouraging. The Twins have somehow managed 25 RBI and 28 runs in these situations (which is clearly a function of quantity over quality of at-bats), putting them right in the middle of the pack. The bottom line is that they've done a fantastic job of getting people on base, but a miserable job of knockin' em in.
So what does this all mean? If anything, despite the fact that the Twins are 19-10, I might actually go so far as to say that this team is underachieving a little bit. In 2008, the Twins hit a blistering .305 with RISP and were barely able to sneak into Game 163, and last year they needed a furious late-season charge to get into the playoffs, despite being top-5 in RISP (and hitting a whopping .355 with the bases loaded). The fact that the Twins have gotten off to such a hot start despite not managing to take advantage of some key situations, particularly with the bases juiced, should portend better offensive output as the season progresses. The worst bases-loaded average of 2009 belonged to the Royals at .198, and the Mets were next at .220, so the Twins obviously won't stay this low forever. They may or may not get back to or above league-average (.279 in 2009), but it will get better. Whether you attribute the improvement to better "mental toughness" or regression to the mean is up to you, but more RISP hits added to the excellent plate discipline and on-base skills the Twins have already shown will make this offense even more feared that it already is.